Restore fathers to families and communities: Six steps for policy makers

Restore fathers to families. Fatherhood policy, Africa Fatherhood Initiative

Across the continent, in African states and communities, we need to mobilise to restore fathers to families and increase fathers’ involvement in the lives of their children!

The strategies in each country may vary widely, reflecting the cultural and philosophical differences about the definition of “responsible fatherhood.” Some efforts may focus on teaching men the skills they need to be good fathers; others will concentrate on child support enforcement; still others will promote marriage and two-parent family formation. But the reality is that all AU states are still doing less than they could to promote father involvement.

Our African Fathers Initiative (AFI) 2008 survey of state responsible fatherhood efforts, reported that very few African states had even considered the vital role of fatherhood in national and community development or had begun efforts to help fathers in the previous two years.

There isn’t enough specific information available for African state and local officials about what they can do, legislatively or administratively, to help fathers help their children. We need more research and public discourse.

Steps to restore fathers to families

This guide tries to fill that gap. It lays out a detailed six-step strategy for promoting father involvement, especially among low-income, unwed men. The guide will be most useful for African legislators, governors, and agency officials looking for ways to better serve fathers. But local government officials, businesses, community-based organizations, and faith-based communities will find ideas they can use as well.

Each of the six steps includes a menu of policy options from which policymakers can choose. Each step also includes detailed examples of what states, communities, and NGOs can do to promote responsible fatherhood, along with some contacts and resources for policymakers who want to learn more. The six steps are:

Step 1: Teach men to be good parents

Children whose fathers are actively involved in their lives do better in school than children whose fathers aren’t around. They are less prone to depression. They have better social skills. And they are more likely to become good parents themselves. If African states want to ensure the best outcomes for their children, they will help men learn to be better fathers.

Teaching men about the responsibilities of fatherhood can’t start too early. The African Fathers Initiative emphasises that preparation for parenthood should begin in boyhood, with programs that teach boys to behave responsibly, set high expectations, offer hope for the future, and ensure that all boys are connected to adult role models.

If these programs are effective, boys will learn the importance of good fathering—and take steps to ensure that they don’t become fathers before they are ready. Our goal is to discourage teen pregnancy and reduce the need for future child support enforcement by for example, teaching middle and high school students about the financial costs of raising a child.

African states should also look beyond prevention to helping men who are already fathers improve their parenting skills. Public support for programmes can help new and expectant fathers learn about child development, supporting their babies’ mothers, and caring for their infants.

Action steps for state officials to restore fathers to families:

  • Revise sex education curricula to include components on fathering and the responsibilities of fatherhood.
  • Require teens to study child health and child development in school. Organise and fund fatherhood education and support groups that are linked to programs serving new mothers.
  • Link paternity establishment programs to parenting programmes for new fathers.
  • Support programs that work with incarcerated fathers to help them learn to stay connected with their children while in prison and be better parents when they are released.

Step 2: Help fathers improve relationships with their children’s mothers

Children in single-parent families are more likely than children in two-parent families to grow up poor, fall behind in school, experience emotional problems, and end up in trouble with the law. By promoting marriage and two-parent family formation, states can save a fortune in social services and correctional expenses later on.

Not all parents marry, or stay married. In cases where parents can’t get along, states can first offer conflict resolution services to help parents resolve their differences; if those efforts fail, states can support efforts to help parents develop “co-parenting” skills. These efforts can help non-custodial, divorced, or never married parents stay involved in their children’s lives.

However, states also must recognize that some parents pose a danger to their children and partners. Any state-funded program that promotes marriage or co-parenting should have staff members who are knowledgeable about recognizing signs of physical and emotional abuse—and they should act quickly to protect children and others from danger.

Action steps for state officials to restore fathers to families:

  • Encourage or require pre-marital counseling before couples can get marriage licenses.
  • Fund organizations that focus on culturally sensitive relationship counselling and/or model marriage.
  • Require parenting programmes that receive state funds to train their staff members to spot domestic violence, report suspected abuse, and provide referrals to domestic violence services.

Step 3: Remove the barriers to work for low-income fathers

One of the best ways to reduce childhood poverty and promote stable, healthy two-parent families is helping low-income men find work–but preferably not migrant work.

Many fathers who don’t pay child support are not “deadbeat.” They are simply “dead-broke.”

Trevor Davies

African states should do more to help low-income men find steady, well-paid employment. Any father who needs it should be able to access job-search assistance, education and job training programs, and support in keeping his job. African states also need to address the tremendous barriers to employment that many men face. Low-income non-custodial fathers frequently struggle with low educational attainment, lack of work experience, and chronic unemployment.

Action Steps for State Officials to restore fathers to families:

  • Link parenting programmes for fathers to programs that focus on employment and training.
  • Require state and local courts to refer men with child support arrears to employment programs.
  • Require child-support enforcement offices to pursue modification orders for low-income fathers who are trying in good faith to find and keep a job.
  • Fund legal and counseling services for low-income men and women to help them overcome barriers to employment.

Step 4: Use state funding to pump-prime good fathering practice

Because of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the child’s right to equal parenting from both mothers and fathers, African states should allocate additional funding to serve fathers as well as mothers — and give more flexibility to pro-fatherhood agencies in choosing how to spend it. They may use block grant funds for any activity that meets the four broad purposes of welfare reform: ending welfare dependence, promoting employment, encouraging two-parent families, and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

For example, states could help young fathers overcome barriers to employment through intensive, one-on-one case management and weekly peer support groups.

Action Steps for State Officials to restore fathers to families:

  • Set aside a percentage of funds for programmes serving low-income non-custodial parents.

Step 5: Make the child support system work for children – not the state

Most children need financial support from two parents, not just one. That is why states need to step up child support efforts, streamline collection procedures and institute new penalties for parents who don’t pay.

To some extent, these tougher laws are working. But many new laws have done little to address the complaints of many fathers that existing approaches to custody and visitation unfairly discriminate against dads. They also make life harder for parents who can’t afford to pay.

The average low-income father has accumulated thousands of dollars in child support debt. Paradoxically, in many cases low-income fathers don’t even owe this money to their families; they owe it to states as reimbursement for welfare payments to their children.

States can change the culture of the child support system from a punitive one to one that gives fathers positive incentives to support their children. States can enact more generous child support pass-throughs, which allow all child support collected to be paid to children.

States also can forgive or reduce the child support debt that low-income fathers owe to states.

Finally, states can invest money in access and visitation programmes that help fathers see their children. The more connected fathers are to their children, the more likely they are to pay child support.

Action Steps for State Officials to restore fathers to families:

  • Reinstate state child support pass-throughs or strengthen existing pass-throughs to allow at least some of the child support paid by low-income fathers to be paid directly to their families.
  • Forgive or decrease child support debt owed to the state for fathers who participate in programs designed to increase their earnings and improve their parenting skills.
  • Rewrite state child support guidelines to allow self-support reserves for non-custodial working parents.
  • Amend state Earned Income Tax Credits to give fathers credit for the child support they pay.
  • Suspend or forgive child support debt owed to the state when parents reunite or marry.

Step 6: Campaign to reinforce the message that “fathers matter”

Public awareness campaigns — reinforcing the message that children need their fathers for emotional as well as financial support — can play a major role in changing society’s attitudes toward fatherhood. More importantly, these efforts can change the attitudes of fathers themselves.

The African Fathers Initiative is helping raise public awareness through media campaigns, essay contests, and grassroots organizing. But states can and must do more. They must train employees to be sensitive to fatherhood issues, assess their own laws and policies for father- friendliness, and support community-based fatherhood programmes. States could make seed grants to grassroots programmes in their states. And every state agency could be made to audit its policies for father-friendliness.

Action Steps for State Officials to restore fathers to families:

  • Create fatherhood commissions to advise the legislature on how state agencies can better serve fathers and families.
  • Initiate public awareness campaigns that promote responsible fatherhood.
  • Develop father resource centers to serve as local clearinghouses for training and advice to fathers and social service agencies.
  • Conduct service audits for father-friendliness.
  • Include a component on fathers in any diversity training that public employees are required to attend.
  • Convene fatherhood hearings or town hall meetings and invite fathers, including low-income non-custodial fathers, to speak.
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    Children without involved fathers, or a significant older male father figure, are at great risk of both perpetrating and becoming victims of violence - both as children and adults - and of becoming victims of substance abuse; teen pregnancy; poor academic achievement; mental health problems and delinquency.

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